As the midterms rapidly approach, the beleaguered US President’s ratings are in steep decline, putting him on the defensive with little to offer his supporters except fine words. Those supporters have been voicing their discontent on the television networks but, much more seriously, are likely to punish Obama by staying at home and ignoring the ballot box on Tuesday.
Indeed, this has been a humiliating time for the once seemingly messianic President. This week’s decision for Obama to appear on the US satirical current affairs TV programme The Daily Show — which is largely watched by liberal voters — was a disaster. The audience openly laughed at him; the presenter, Jon Stewart, gave Obama the honour of being the first President to be called “Dude” to his face on national television; and, worst of all, Obama was forced to recant on the most effective marketing slogan of his generation. “Yes we can,” Obama admitted, had become “Yes we can, but…” Not exactly a rallying cry.
The desperate move to try to rescue himself from disarray, if not extinction, was misguided. While the audience laughed at him, Obama’s self-justificatory response was wooden and dull. “When we promised ‘Change you can believe in’, it wasn’t ‘Change you can believe in in 18 months’.”
So how has Obama ended up in this mess? The question voters are asking is whether anything has altered substantially since the White House changed hands? To which I can answer: very little, apart from the mood music. The high hopes aroused during Obama’s galvanising election campaign have receded rapidly. Two wars and an economic crisis would test the capacity of any president, but Obama has been found wanting on many levels. His desire to please all has succeeded in antagonising many of his own supporters.
In Washington and New York last month, I spoke to several Afro-American activists whose sadness and anger was written on their faces. They won’t vote for him again.
Sadly, proximity to power has an unsurprising ability to mutate a politician’s spinal cord into bright yellow jelly. But, in times of crisis, punishment is not long in coming. Despite the media hoopla that surrounds them, Obama isn’t being much punished by the rise of the Tea Party movement. Their shenanigans are, much to the delight of the White House, largely succeeding in destabilising the Republican establishment.
The election to the presidency of a mixed-race Democrat, vowing to heal America’s wounds at home and restore its reputation abroad, had been greeted with a wave of ideological euphoria not seen since the days of Kennedy. The shameful interlude of Republican swagger and criminality, they thought, was over.
Illusion-mongering about America’s new dawn spread to every continent. Europeans concluded that if they had to permanently kow-tow to the great global hegemon across the water, better this Holy American Emperor than his ghastly predecessor. Hence the noisy sighs of relief that greeted Obama’s triumph. The happiness was visible on his face as he waved back to cheering Europeans, relishing the universal adulation: a warm reception from Pope and prime minister in Rome, delirium bordering on ecstasy in Berlin, adoring crowds and Carla Bruni in Paris and the predictable, if enjoyable, servility on show in London.
Two years later Obamania is also on the decline in Europe. Rarely has self-interested mythology — or well-meaning gullibility — been more quickly exposed. And it has been most clearly exposed in the arena of foreign affairs. Essentially there was no fundamental break in policy between the Bush and Obama regimes. The strategic goals and imperatives of the US imperium remain the same, as do its principal theatres and means of operation.
In 2002, on his way up the political ladder as a low-profile state senator in Illinois, Obama opposed the attack on Iraq; it was politically inexpensive to do so. By the time he was elected President, his first act was to rehire Bush’s Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, in the Pentagon. A cruder and more demonstrative signal of political continuity could hardly have been conceived. Before his election, Obama promised a withdrawal of all US “combat” troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office, that is, by May 2010 — with a safety clause that the pledge could be “refined” in the light of events. It promptly was. While the last combat brigade did leave in August this year, 56,000 American “service personnel” remain.
The uneasy thought persists that the Iraqi resistance might just be biding its time and could still visit havoc on the “collaborators” left in the country, should the US military pull out. To ensure against any such danger, Washington has put down markers in the modern equivalents — although vastly larger and more hideous — of the Crusader fortresses of old. The Balad base, within easy reach of Baghdad, resembles a small-town American state: an airport busier than Heathrow, a South Asian immigrant labour force, Subway sandwich bars and East European prostitutes. Another 13 such military and air force bases are scattered over Iraq.
The US could have got away with more semi-permanent military bases in Iraq (and still might) had it done a deal with Tehran, as Obama claimed it would when he was campaigning. But schemes for a grand reconciliation between the states had to be set aside. The shrewd calculation was upset by political polarisation in Iran.
The Democratic administration has now reverted to the line of its predecessor, attempting to corral Russia and China — European acquiescence can be taken for granted — into an economic blockade of Iran, in the hope of so strangling the country that the Supreme Leader will be overthrown or obliged to come to terms. To say that this is unlikely to happen is to stress the obvious. Greenlighting an Israeli strike on the nuclear reactors would be supported by the EU political class, but is being resisted strongly by the Pentagon, only too well aware that the Iranians could inflict heavy damage on three fronts: Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.
From Palestine through Iraq to Iran, Obama has acted as just another steward of the US Empire, pursuing the same aims as his predecessors, with the same means but with a more emollient rhetoric. In Afghanistan, he has gone further, widening the front of imperial aggression with an escalation of violence.
When he took office, Afghanistan had been occupied by US and satellite forces for more than seven years. During his election campaign, Obama — determined to outdo Bush in this “just war” — pledged more troops and firepower to crush the Afghan resistance, and more ground intrusions and drone attacks in Pakistan to burn out support for it across the border. This is one promise he has kept. In what The New York Times delicately described as a “statistic that the White House has not advertised”, it informed readers that “since Mr Obama came to office, the Central Intelligence Agency has mounted more Predator drone strikes into Pakistan than during Mr Bush’s eight years in office”.
Desperate to claim victory in a “just war”, Obama has dispatched a still larger expeditionary force, expanding the war to a neighbouring country where the enemy is suspected of finding succour. It was announced that Pakistan and Afghanistan would henceforward be treated as an integrated war-zone: “Afpak”.
If a textbook illustration were needed of the continuity of American foreign policy across administrations, and the futility of so many softheaded attempts to treat the Bush-Cheney years as exceptional rather than essentially conventional, Obama’s conduct has provided it. From one end of the Middle East to the other, the only significant material change is a further escalation of the War on Terror — or “Evil”, as he prefers to call it — with Yemen seen as the next target.
Still, it would be a mistake to think that nothing has changed. No administration is exactly like any other, and each president leaves a stamp on his own. Little of US imperial dominion has altered under Obama. But propagandistically, there has been a significant upgrade. In Cairo, at West Point, at Oslo, the world has been treated to one uplifting homily after another, each address larded with every euphemism that White House speechwriters could muster to describe America’s glowing mission in the world: “Our cause is just, our resolve unwavering.” The model for this variant of imperial presidency is Woodrow Wilson — no less pious a Christian (his supporters compared him to Jesus), whose every second word was peace, democracy, or self-determination, while his armies occupied Haiti and attacked Russia.
But for those who yearn for it, cant is a good substitute for hard drugs.
Tariq Ali’s latest book, ‘The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad’, is published by Verso on November 1